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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Caroline, or Change. Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, with music by Jeanine Tesori, which came to San Francisco with much of the original Broadway cast intact, isn't your typical musical. At no point does the central character, Caroline Thibodeaux (Tonya Pinkins), an African-American maid in a white Jewish household in early 1960s Louisiana and struggling mother of four, fall in love with a handsome stranger, sing a showstopping number in a sequined bikini, or carry out a violent murder with a hatchet. The show's biggest criminal incident revolves around a fight over a $20 bill. The flashiest song 'n' dance number is a nursery rhyme about an ill-fated urchin by the name of Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw sung by a trio of kids. And unless you count the infatuation of the Gellmans' 8-year-old son Noah with the grouchy maid, there is no love story to speak of, only a profound sense of futility and loss. Director George C. Wolfe couldn't have assembled a more magnificent cast to communicate Tesori's music and Kushner's words. (The performances were so engaging that I couldn't help wishing Riccardo Hernández's clunky, constantly trundling set would get stuck in the wings and leave the singing and acting to set the scene themselves.) At the center, a colossus astride an ironing board, stands Pinkins. Dressed in a matronly white maid's uniform with a scowl permanently fixed to her face, she makes an unlikely heroine. Her voice -- honeyed in the upper register, growling down below -- relates Caroline more closely to the great tragic stars of opera than to the central character of a musical. Through Feb. 20 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $50-90; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 26.

Fêtes de la Nuit. One of the biggest theatrical hits in Paris last year was a comédie-musicale called Zapping! that, with its relentlessly chirpy medley, lovingly regurgitated many of the French's favorite bits of American pop culture, from Grease to Gene Kelly. Berkeley Rep's world premiere production of Charles L. Mee's Fêtes de la Nuit returns the favor with its racy celebration of all things French. The show is supposed to be a love song (or "naughty Valentine") to Paris, but I'm not sure there's much intrinsically Parisian about this gorgeously packaged promenade of clichés, although it's arguably Gaulish in tone. Through Mee's string of witty petit foursize comic sketches exploring a variety of themes, including sex, food, cigarettes, and sex -- did I mention sex? -- our shallowest impressions of the culture that brought us Johnny Hallyday are upheld: The French intellectualize too much, they're a bunch of nymphomaniacs, and they hate McDonald's. While Mee's eye on French culture isn't nearly as sharp as, say, Adam Gopnik's in his collection of essays Paris to the Moon, director Les Waters -- helped by Annie Smart's simple set designs, Christal Weatherly's haute couture, and crisp lighting and sound effects by Alexander V. Nichols and Jake Rodriguez -- manages to create delicately moving tableaux vivantsin many of the scenes (particularly those in which the actors don't rush about speaking in terrible Inspector Clouseau accents). Experiencing Fêtes de la Nuit is like being tickled with a pink feather boa: It causes deliciously tantalizing sensations to run up and down your spine, but after a bit, you just want it to stop. Through Feb. 27 at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $10-55; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 9.

I Look Like an Egg, But I Identify as a Cookie. In her solo show, Heather Gold recounts the journey from Niagara Falls (where she spent the first 19 years of her life) to her current role as San Francisco's resident lesbian domestic goddess -- while baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies in front of a live audience. Even as she's plunking bits of soggy dough onto a battered metal baking tray and babbling on about her rugby-playing days as a law student at Yale, Gold, wielding her remarkable improvisation skills, creates an atmosphere of cozy intimacy. Certain parts of her monologue ramble on for too long, but even during the show's most half-baked moments, it's easy to understand why the audience gets so involved: Gold makes for an endearingly slapdash cook. Each performance involves a special guest, and it's a sheer pleasure to see a food-themed show that's not about battling one's body image (as is so often the case with productions by female artists -- e.g., Eve Ensler's The Good Body) and a program stuffed with recipes for delicacies like gingersnaps and caramel chocolate squares. Through Feb. 27 at Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30-50; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.subvert.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 12.

Mambo Italiano. Steve Galluccio's comedy describes what it's like growing up gay and Italian in Canada as if it's some particularly horrible and unsightly affliction, a bit like the King's Evil or Blue Rubber Bleb Nevus. When Angelo, a young buck who lives in Montreal with his lover and old school chum, Nino, decides to come out to his overbearing Italian parents, the bruschetta hits the fan. Mama and Papa turn a ghastly shade of white, dead relations turn in their graves, and Galluccio gleefully turns the stage into a set for a TV sitcom, complete with a cast of clichéd characters in wafer-thin situations. The New Conservatory Theatre Center's actors have a lot of fun with this histrionic play, forging chuckles even at the most groan-worthy one-liners with their silly walks and canned Italian accents ("What's-a wrong-a with-a living-a at-a home-a?"). Camilla Busnovetsky is particularly charming as the local construction company heiress and "nice Italian gal," Pina: The way she flips from girlish sobs about being boyfriendless to Mafia don vulgarity when she's bellowing down the phone at her employees is highly endearing. In fact, people shout a great deal in this production. It's not just to do with the fact that they're portraying a bunch of Italians; it's because of the ever-present soundtrack. There's hardly a scene that isn't accompanied by music. From blasts of "That's Amore!" to gusts of Górecki, this "mood" music, played at high volume, doesn't enhance what's happening onstage. Through Feb. 20 at NCTC, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $20-32; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 9.

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